The portion of the Urubamba Valley southeast of Cusco holds some of Peru's most impressive cultural treasures. Surprisingly, this section of the valley is relatively unknown to most foreign travelers. It is not uncommon for our clients to report that they had many of these sites completely to themselves.
The gardens of Tipon are located 15 miles south of Cusco. Here, the grassy hillside is divided into twelve neat terraces. Each is lined with stepped walls and fed by an ingenious system of aqueducts that operates flawlessly after centuries of use. The site is believed to have been a palace of the exiled Inca Yahuar Huaca.
Pikillacta, a pre-Inca town constructed by the Wari people around 900 AD, lies four miles east of Tipon. This vast complex contains the walls and foundations of an estimated 900 buildings. Remarkably, the site also shows signs of stacked roadways—structures on which two directions of foot traffic could pass simultaneously. After defeating the Wari around 1200 AD, the Inca conquerors heaped on the insults: they beheaded the Wari leaders, salted the surrounding agricultural lands, and buried city.
Nearby is another imposing complex known as Rumicolqa, consisting of three towering pyramidal wall segments. The walls are set on gigantic stone blocks, and the top level serves as an aqueduct that carried water to Pikillacta. The Inca expanded the structure, fortifying it and adapting the walls into a gate that regulated traffic for the imperial capital.
The town of Andahuaylillas, five miles from Pikillacta and 32 miles southeast of Cusco, is noteworthy for its 17th century Church of San Pedro. Built by Jesuits on the foundation of an Inca temple, the interior is richly adorned in gilt and Cusqueña style murals created by Luis de Raiño. Several of these paintings mix Catholic scenes with indigenous symbolism. The murals of the afterlife—painted near the exit—vividly depict the rewards of heaven and the torments of hell.
Urcos, six miles southeast of Andahuaylillas, is a quiet town of whitewashed homes, narrow side streets, and a traditional market. Farmers and weavers from around the neighboring towns arrive on Saturday night and Sunday morning, offering a rainbow of corn varieties, anise-scented chicha, and handcrafted textiles.
The largest temple complex in the Andes is found another 38 miles southeast of Urcos. Known as Raqchi, this site extends for a square mile and is anchored by monumental Temple of Wiracocha. The temple walls stand 39 feet high, mounted on perfectly joined stone blocks. A series of 21 circular columns once supported an enormous roof. Legend says that the temple was constructed by Inca Tupac Yupanqui as an offering to keep peace with the nearby Quimsa Volcano. Visitors to the site can also explore storehouses and circular lodges used by Inca pilgrims.
To the north of the Valley del Sur is a region known for its boisterous cultural traditions. The heart of this area is Paucartambo, a charming colonial town situated at the convergence of the Mapacho and Qengo Mayo rivers 68 miles (3.5 hours) from Cusco. Every year on July 15th, this sleepy village erupts in a three-day festival that draws thousands of pilgrims and revelers from across southern Peru. The Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen commemorates the city's patron saint, but the observances liberally blend Catholic themes with indigenous symbolism and ritual. Over the course of the festival, a dozen troupes of masked dancers portray the struggle between good and evil. The action is continuous, as fireworks, an outdoor mass, mock battles and bullfights, and bonfire leapers add to the celebration.
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